Today we celebrate Ohigan. Ohigan is celebrated twice a year during the spring and autumn equinox, the time of year when the day and night are of equal length. The Ohigan is also a time of transition, from the short days of winter to the long days of summer and back again. As a time of seasonal transition, it also represents the transitions of human life, from the sunny summer of life to dark winter of death. This is why the Ohigan is a time to remember those who have passed on, particularly our ancestors and loved ones. It is also a time to give thought to another kind of transition, from this shore of birth and death to the other shore of enlightenment, wherein birth and death is transcended. In fact, we recite the Odaimoku and the Lotus Sutra for the purpose of enabling those of us still living and those who are deceased for whom we dedicate merit to both arrive at the other shore of awakening.
For any kind of journey one needs to pack, or make provisions. Even an overnight trip requires that we bring a change of clothes and toiletries like shaving gear, deodorant, and so on. What kind of provisions, then, do we need to journey to the other shore of enlightenment? In this case, a spare towel or shaving kit will not suffice. We need something that is both less substantial and at the same time more real. According to Mahayana Buddhism, those of us who aspire to buddhahood will require what are called the six paramitas. Paramita is usually translated as “perfection” as in the “six perfections.” But it actually means “crossing over.” So these are the six characteristics of those who are able to cross over from this shore of suffering to the other shore of enlightenment, and who, furthermore, are able to help others to make that transition and cross as well.
In the Unlocking the Mysteries Sutra (Skt. Samdhinirmochana Sutra) the Buddha explains these six provisions for crossing over to Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, the Regarder of the Cries of the World, who asked the Buddha, “How many things should bodhisattvas learn?” The Buddha replied, “In general, there are six things bodhisattvas should learn: generosity, self-discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom.” (Adapted from Buddhist Yoga translated by Thomas Clear, p. 75)
Further on, Kuan Yin asks, “How many different kinds of each of the six paramitas are there?” The Buddha replied, “There are three kinds. The three kinds of giving are giving of goods, giving of teaching, and giving of fearlessness.” The Buddha then proceeds to explain each of the six paramitas in terms of the minimum benefit, a more proactive or far-reaching benefit, and a truly transcendent or selfless benefit. He starts with the paramita of giving. Giving of material goods is helpful, but giving people teachings whereby they can help themselves is even better. Best of all is to fearlessly stand by people in times of need or suffering even at the risk of one’s reputation or even life.
“The three kinds of self-discipline are the self-discipline of increasingly giving up what is not good, the self-discipline of increasingly developing what is good, and the self-discipline of increasingly benefiting all beings.” Here we see that self-discipline is not merely self-control but is the work of actively working for the well being of others.
“The three kinds of patience are the patience of bearing injury, the patience of serenity in suffering, and the patience of truthful observation of realities.” Here one is patient even with those who have caused offense or even harm. But even better is to be patient with all forms of suffering, to not be discouraged but to move forward. The last one is most remarkable and particular to bodhisattvas. To face all things as they really are, that is to say impermanent and empty of any fixed or permanent nature requires great patience and courage. At first, the teachings of no-self and emptiness are extremely disconcerting but with patience the bodhisattvas come to realize that things, including the true nature of our own lives, are not “empty and meaningless” but “empty and marvelous.” This is a talk for another day, but for now just note that the Buddha himself realized that the Buddha Dharma itself requires great patience and courage to fully understand and appreciate.
“The three kinds of diligence are diligence as armor, diligence of concerted effort to increasingly develop good qualities, and the diligence of concentrated effort to help sentient beings.” Diligence as armor means that the greatest protection we can have is to continuously strive to overcome our own selfishness and shortsightedness as well as against whatever hardships we may find ourselves faced with. Avoiding bad habits and curbing those we may already have is just a beginning however. We also need to actively cultivate the good. But even beyond that bodhisattvas make efforts for the sake of all beings.
“The three kinds of meditation are meditation in a state of bliss without discriminating thought, still and silent, extremely tranquil and impeccable, thus curing the pains of afflictions; meditation that brings forth virtuous qualities and powers; and meditation that brings forth benefit for sentient beings.” Here meditation is spoken of first in terms of the various states of calm abiding, the dhyanas from whence the word Zen comes from. Beyond that are those forms of meditation that in the sutras grant miraculous powers that can be used to help all beings. Best of all is to attain a state of meditation wherein peace and happiness is communicated to all beings thus inspiring them to initiate their own practice.
“The three kinds of wisdom are wisdom focused on conventional worldly truth, wisdom focused on ultimate truth, and wisdom focused on benefiting sentient beings.” (Ibid, pp.78-79) Conventional worldly truth covers everything from plain old common sense to theoretical physics, but the most important thing is acting skillfully in the world so as to benefit others. Ultimate truth is to realize emptiness wherein all things are dynamically interrelated and all duality is transcended. Best of all is to realize how best to use one’s insight to help all beings also awaken to the truth.
These are the six paramitas, the six kinds of qualities that enable us to cross over from delusion to enlightenment, from birth and death to deathlessness. According to Nichiren Shonin in the Kanjin Honzon Sho: “…Shakyamuni Buddha’s merit of practicing the bodhisattva way leading to buddhahood, as well as that of preaching and saving all living beings since his attainment of buddhahood, are altogether contained in the five characters of Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo. Consequently, when we uphold the five characters, the merits that he accumulated before and after his attainment of buddhahood are naturally inclined to us.” This means that we should hear this description of the six paramitas as a promise that these are the kinds of qualities that we will find within our own lives and bring out more and more based on our trust and confidence in Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. This short phrase is a seed that we plant in our lives and cultivate every time we recite it, and the six paramitas are among the innumerable fruits that this seed will produce in our lives. Let us chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo with full confidence and joyful anticipation of transcendent fruits that are our provisions for crossing over to the other shore of perfect and complete awakening and boundless compassionate action on behalf of all beings.
Paramita = Crossing Over – from the shore of birth and death to the shore of nirvana
With material goods
With the teachings
In fearlessly standing by others to protect and support them
In giving up what is not good
In developing what is good
In Increasingly benefiting all beings
With the truthful observation of all realities
As an armor against temptations and hardships
In developing good qualities
In our efforts to help all beings
For the deepening degrees of concentration, awareness, and equanimity
For the development of virtuous qualities and powers
For the benefit of all beings
In regard to conventional worldly truth
In regard to ultimate truth
In regard to the benefit of all beings